ISLAMABAD — Pakistan and Russia have held high-level discussions focusing on how to expand their political, economic and military relationship. But analysts believe Afghanistan is at the center of the intensified diplomacy as both countries are positioning themselves in anticipation of expected withdrawal of most U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan by 2014.
Pakistani military chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kayani traveled to Moscow this week while Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Islamabad.
The high-level exchanges took place just days after President Vladimir Putin cancelled his much anticipated trip to Pakistan, which would have been the first visit by a Russian head of the state. He was supposed to be in the Pakistani capital this week to attend a summit involving Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Russia, which was also postponed. The cancellation is seen by many as a setback for efforts to improve ties.
However, speaking in Islamabad at the end of their talks Thursday, Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar and her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov both dismissed those suggestions.
“I think the fact that Foreign Minister Lavrov is with us on two-day notice should also be taken as a very positive indication in terms of Russian Federation’s commitment to this relationship,” said Khar.
Timing of warmer relationship
The warming of Islamabad’s ties with Moscow comes amid a persistently strained relationship between Pakistan and the United States.
“We have had a rollercoaster-type relationship with the United States, repeated sanctions against Pakistan, economic sanctions, threats of military sanctions and especially in the last 10 years - this popular anti-U.S. sentiment has grown so much in Pakistan that now I think people of Pakistan would welcome warming up with the Russians,” said Farooq Hameed Khan, a former Pakistani army brigadier.
But many critics are skeptical about recent intensified diplomatic and military exchanges between Pakistan and Russia, in view of a troubled history of bilateral ties.
Pakistan, together with the United States, funded and trained the Afghan Mujahideen who successfully fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. That collaboration has remained a major hurdle in efforts to revive ties between Islamabad and Moscow.
Center of diplomacy
The chairman of Pakistani Senate’s Defense Committee, Mushahid Hussain, says that while the stepped up diplomacy signifies a new beginning in Islamabad’s relations with Moscow, Pakistan, Russia and other regional powers are positioning themselves in anticipation of the expected U.S.-NATO withdrawal from war-ravaged Afghanistan in 2014.
“So in that context, our relationship with Russia assumes a certain importance because in the Cold War and after, we could not revive that relationship," said Hussein. "This also has implications for regional economic cooperation because Russia is sitting on top of important oil and gas reserves. So the relationship is not just going to be political, it’s also going to be economic.”
While in Islamabad, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov also acknowledged that Afghanistan was a major subject of his talks with Pakistani officials. He stated that both countries share views on how to resolve the Afghan conflict.
He emphasized that all proposals with the respect to solving the Afghan conflict must emerge from within that country through a national reconciliation process that involves all stakeholders who abide by the country’s constitution and reject violence.
Pakistan’s role is considered crucial to the Afghan reconciliation process because of its past links with some insurgent groups in Afghanistan, including the Taliban.
The United States has acknowledged the key role Islamabad can play in efforts aimed at bringing Afghan insurgents to the negotiating table. At the same time, U.S. officials have alleged that elements within the Pakistani military still support the militant Haqqani network in carrying out cross-border raids on American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.